Admittedly, expectations for the November 4 meeting between Presidents Biden of the United States and Xi of China were not particularly high, so no one should be surprised that little of real substance emerged from their encounter in Bali, Indonesia. Both leaders laid out their concerns about the other side’s behavior while promising to contain their mutual antagonisms at a level below that of armed conflict. They also agreed to increase high-level contacts—Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Beijing early next year as part of this process—and to resume formal talks over climate change. But neither leader appeared to give ground on any of the major fissures in US-China relations, so the risk of conflict is bound to persist.
In fact, the meeting occurred at a time when tensions between the two countries was already at a very high level, and many analysts were beginning to suggest that a US-China war—probably triggered by a confrontation over Taiwan—was becoming a very real possibility. Accordingly, the Biden-Xi encounter was intended less to achieve diplomatic breakthroughs than to prevent relations from deteriorating even further.
By meeting in person and discussing their differences openly, leaders from both sides sought to lower tensions and adopt measures to prevent future crises from spiraling out of control. In this, they may have succeeded: Both leaders indicated after the meeting that they had shared their primary concerns with each other—their “red lines,” as Biden put it—and agreed to keep lines of communication open so as to prevent dangerous miscalculations in a crisis. “We’re going to compete vigorously, but I’m not looking for conflict,” Biden affirmed. “I’m looking to manage this competition responsibly.”
Read the full op-ed, published November 17, 2022, in The Nation.